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Gus, Gerry veer off the beaten track

When a movie polarizes audiences the way Gus Van Sant's 'Gerry' has, you usually expect something bold and stimulatingly different. But don't be surprised if your reaction to the film occupies some ambivalent middle ground between the ecstatic heights and scornful depths that appear to typify the response.

Certainly a departure from the Hollywood uplift in which Van Sant has been trafficking of late, 'Gerry' can easily be seen as the latest step in a career path marked by variety, eccentricity and wanderlust.

It might just as easily strike you as a former independent mainstay's misguided attempt to boost his stock on the indie market again.

Call it a stunt if you like. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The current 'Russian Ark' is a stunt, but it's a glorious one. 'Gerry' isn't glorious, but neither is it as stirring or as stupefying as some would have it.

It begins when two guys who call each other Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) drive to a desert hiking trail and set off to see 'the thing.' In no time, they are lost. In more time, they are even more lost.

That's about it plotwise, and that's enough to have many of Van Sant's recently attracted viewers feeling deeply lost or wondering if the snack bar carries No-Doz. But, as a film less likely to occupy the usual multiplex cubbyhole than the kind of theater where some of Van Sant's earlier stuff played, it may fall below the mainstream radar and not trouble fans of 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Finding Forrester.'

On the other hand, those who haven't found it a total waste have responded to the film's arid widescreen vistas (Argentina and Death Valley), static compositions and very long takes with comparisons to such masters as Antonioni, Tarkovsky and current art-house darling, Bela Tarr.

The problem is, you're talking about an established personal style with those guys, but not with Van Sant. Here, you have a sense of something being merely tried on for size, something born of curiosity rather than need or passion.

What may make the trip seem longer is that neither Damon nor Affleck (the younger, lesser-known half of the Affleck acting empire) is likely to be voted 'Guy You'd Most Like to Be Lost in the Desert With.' Lightweight as tumbleweeds, they speak in cutesy-slangy, improvised dialogue that irritates like blown sand. Gerry, for example, is not just their name for each other but their word for a mistake or screw-up, as in 'we Gerried that last turn.'

This is not to say the film is in any way Gerry-built. It is entirely consistent in its stylistic rigor and willingness to stray from a narrative path in a more experimental direction.

But it's a controlled experiment. Though it is loosely based on a real incident, and it's easy to imagine something like this happening, 'Gerry' is too self-conscious for realism. The thing has more in common with Van Sant's art-school-like 'replica' of 'Psycho' than with his earlier stuff or his feel-good 'Hunting' and 'Finding.'

It almost seems intended to be compared to the work of someone else Ñ someone, detractors might say, like his earlier self.

This Van Sant comes off like a tourist. Not lost, but not inspired. Interested, maybe, but just visiting.